By Mary Spicer
Neither the prosecution nor the defense is pleased with the outcome, but a plea bargain accepted Friday afternoon has brought an abrupt halt to plans for a murder trial set to begin Monday in Crawford County Court of Common Pleas. Jury selection, which had been scheduled to begin Friday, was abruptly canceled late Thursday afternoon.
The trial of Titusville resident Brandon Todd Tracy, 19, one of four men charged with killing a Conneautville-area resident last August in order to get drugs and cash, was canceled after Tracy pleaded guilty to charges of third-degree murder and conspiracy to commit burglary before President Judge Anthony Vardaro. Sentencing is scheduled for Nov. 19; the prosecution and defense have asked for a cumulative sentence of 25 to 50 years.
Pennsylvania State Police said after the incident that Ronald Shreffler, 46, was shot during a robbery attempt at his Abbot Road home in Summerhill Township during the early morning hours of Aug. 30, 2011.
Police accused Tracy, Alan J. Watkins, 20, of Harmonsburg and brothers Austin Lee Taylor, 18, and Dakota L. Taylor, 16, of Harmonsburg, of plotting to rob Shreffler of a large amount of marijuana and cash, neither of which was found inside the home.
Tracy contacted state police Sept. 20, 2011, admitting to shooting Shreffler and claiming he was forced to take part in the plan and shoot Shreffler or be killed himself by Austin Taylor.
On Oct. 3, Austin Taylor, who was expected to take the witness stand against Tracy, pleaded guilty before Vardaro to one count of third degree murder in connection with the case. Austin Taylor faces a sentence of 20 to 40 years and up to a $50,000 fine for his involvement in the death when he is sentenced Nov. 19.
Crawford County District Attorney Francis Schultz told the Tribune Friday that a court hearing is scheduled Tuesday for Watkins. A hearing has not yet been set for Dakota Taylor.
All four remain lodged without bail in the Crawford County jail in Saegertown.
“It was a difficult case from the defense perspective because of the nature of the shooting,” defense attorney Stephen Misko told the Tribune after the plea was accepted.
“While we are not overly happy with the agreed-upon sentence of 25 to 50, we’re very satisfied that it allows Brandon to make something of his life after he serves the minimum term of 25 years,” Misko continued. “He’ll still be young enough to make something of his life — and maybe contribute back to society.”
Misko noted that Tracy has expressed “his sympathy and sorrow for members of the Shreffler family” to him.
As for why Tracy, who told state police that Austin Taylor was pointing a gun at Tracy’s head during the incident, opted to accept a plea bargain, “There are always issues on defenses,” Misko said.
In this case, Tracy, who was 18 years old at the time of the incident, admitted to the shooting, but he admitted to it under a series of events that might fall under the general category of “duress.” If he had gone to trial, any of the charges under the “criminal homicide” banner, which include first-, second- and third-degree murder as well as voluntary and involuntary manslaughter, could have come up.
“When you reflect on this, if the jury does not accept the defense, what you’re left with is a life sentence,” Misko said. “The most you can get under third-degree murder is 20 to 40 years. The least you can get under murder 1 or 2 (first- or second-degree murder) is life.”
Since the Commonwealth offered the 20- to 40-year sentence, “we decided to give up the coercion defense, eliminating the risk of the life sentence.” The 20- to 40-year offer for the murder charge plus a 5- to 10-year offer for the conspiracy charge resulted in a cumulative sentence of 25 to 50 years.
“I’m not thrilled that we had to resolve the case in that fashion,” Schultz told the Tribune after the plea was accepted.
“The defense was going to be that Tracy was forced to kill Shreffler because one of the defendants had a gun,” he continued. “I certainly don’t believe that happened.
“However, the defense was going to produce witnesses who said that Watkins and Austin Taylor told them that was what they did,” Schultz continued. “I think they were bragging and trying to make themselves look tough, but I believe Tracy’s conduct after the incident indicates that he was a coconspirator.
“The jurors were going to hear witnesses testify that co-defendants Watkins and Austin Taylor had allegedly told them that they had placed a gun to the back of Tracy’s head and forced him to kill Mr. Shreffler,” Schultz said.
“I don’t believe that happened, but the jury was going to hear that — and that could cause us problems,” Schultz added. “Therefore, I believe it was best to take a plea.”
As for why Schultz wasn’t thrilled with the plea, “It was a terrible crime that these defendants were involved in,” he said.
Mary Spicer can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.